'Growing Up Down's': Tommy's got talent

William Jessop's film about a theatre company for people with learning difficulties is a project close to his heart: his brother, an actor who has Down's, is one of its key players. They tell Jeremy Wright about family life in the limelight

Jeremy Wright
Tuesday 21 January 2014 01:00

To truly command the stage as Hamlet is enough of a challenge for any thespian. To do so while your big brother stands by, filming every word and action for a TV documentary, raises the bar even higher. And that's all before one considers the complications that come with having Down's Syndrome.

But Tommy Jessop, whose professional TV credits include Coming Down The Mountain – a play by Mark Haddon about a Down's teenager under threat of fratricide from his jealous sibling – and the hospital drama Holby City, is used to working hard to stay focused. He is currently awaiting the outcome of auditions with the RSC and National Theatre and he knows, as Shakespeare would have it, that the play's the thing.

A member of the Winchester-based Blue Apple Theatre Company, which caters largely for actors with learning disabilities, 28-year-old Tommy headed a six-strong cast that took their production to mainstream theatres across the south of England – all the while under the watchful lens of his film-maker brother, William.

The results will be shown next month on BBC3 in an hour-long programme entitled Growing Up Down's. William's film, co-produced by the independent production company Maverick, charts not only the rehearsals and the tour itself, but also takes a closer look at the personal development of the four leading members of the cast.

Meeting the brothers together in a busy café at the public library in their home town of Winchester, I am struck not so much by their differences as by their similarities.

On the surface, they may appear chalk and cheese. Thirty-year-old William, the writer, film producer and Oxford English graduate, is a slim, 6ft something – all shaggy hair, beard and softly-spoken eloquence. He describes his leather-jacketed sibling – two years younger and more than a head shorter – as a cool character, with the air of a young Marlon Brando. Yes, his everyday speech can be hesitant, sometimes indistinct, and his gaze is often downward. But with both men, I sense a passion for words and storytelling that neither can suppress. When recalling how he'd had to order his real-life girlfriend Katy, who was playing opposite him as Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery", the line comes out full-force from Tommy's diaphragm, complete with a dramatic pause.

William reveals: "There were times when I was behind the camera that I had to pinch myself and think, 'This is Tommy who's doing that.' But he is just very normal. He's very witty, he likes the things that I like. We talk about football and what's in the news. He's got interests, he's got passions, he's got hobbies, he has had a girlfriend.

Tommy in front of his picture on a poster for 'Hamlet'

"All right, he probably wouldn't get many GCSEs, but he has read Shakespeare in the original language, he has understood the themes, he has internalised these great speeches that Hamlet speaks, and delivered them to an audience in a way that the audience understands. Not just delivered them but played them. The number of people who would come up after a performance and say, 'that's the first time I have ever understood Hamlet,' was incredible. If nothing else, he's a phenomenal actor with huge talent."

That talent was apparent from a young age, when Tommy regularly took leading parts in school plays and spent much of his time trying to make people laugh. Still, the passionate Newcastle United fan surprised his parents, Jane and Edmund, when he said that he would rather be a professional actor than a footballer. But after progressing through youth theatre, there seemed little provision for someone like Tommy. So Jane, a former marketing executive, who was also chairman of her local branch of Mencap, founded Blue Apple.

She says: "Now, 70 people with learning disabilities take part each week. Formerly isolated and vulnerable people are fulfilled and creative performers who are changing public and professional understanding of learning disability."

Tommy, growing up in a close, loving family, was most certainly less isolated than many. William recalls: "In many ways, we were just like any other brothers. We played football together, or on the climbing frame, or cricket. I know my Mum was worried at first about how having someone like Tommy for a brother would affect me, but actually I don't remember it ever being an issue. I like to think that Tommy helped me from a very early age to understand that there are different types of people in the world, who do things in different ways, but who still have the same emotions and feelings as everyone else.

"I used to enjoy looking after Tommy – I remember that in a reading competition when I was about six, my tactic was to deliver the words as if I was reading Tommy a bedtime story. I ended up winning. When we were together in public, I think I was aware that people were looking at Tommy differently, but this never bothered me.

"When I got to my teenage years, I think Tommy grounded me. My main worry about things was not that my parents would find out – but that Tommy would copy me. I remember telling people my brother had Down's Syndrome, but although this sometimes elicited sympathy (which surprised me), it never led to prejudice. Anyone that met Tommy immediately fell in love with him, and I was proud to have him as my brother.

"I now realise that Tommy is an incredibly strong, bonding force in our family. We're all still very close, and I love spending time at home. He's also fascinating to work with, both in documentary and as a truly fantastic actor."

Tommy is eager to return the compliment. "It's been really fun growing up with William," he says. "We have a laugh. We watch sport, we talk sport and we both support the same football team. He has helped me massively with my acting career by making films and writing plays. He helps me with speaking lines clearly. He helped me understand Hamlet and helps me create audition speeches, for which I am pretty thankful. I am actually honoured to have William as my older brother."

Although Blue Apple's Hamlet cast are in their 20s and one, James, is in his 30s, the actors' learning disabilities mean that they are to some extent still going through their teenage years, explains William. They also sometimes have great difficulty separating reality from acting.

"For instance, Lawrie, who was playing Claudius, was worried that because his character was evil that he really would go to hell. And Tommy, as Hamlet, was being horrible to Katy in the play, and she found it really difficult to separate the two." In the end the pair decided to split up.

"Because I am Tommy's brother, there are some really quite intimate scenes, where I am watching something real unfold," says William. "Tommy and Katy started going out during the filming and Katy was his first-ever girlfriend. The scene in the documentary where they are breaking up is so powerful. Because I know Tommy so well, I don't see him as someone with Down's. I just see him as Tommy, but it was moving for me to see how mature he was."

Looking around the rest of the company, it's a similar story, he adds. "These are people who are supposedly low-functioning, but on the stage they become giants. What I want the audience to see is that these are just normal people. They are doing Hamlet in the original Shakespeare, they are pretty bloody intelligent. Tommy can't really tie his own shoelaces, but he can stand on stage and break your heart. I hope the film will help people raise their expectations."

So what does Tommy consider the best aspect of his time as Hamlet? "Being the centre of attention. I really like being the centre of the crowd and the centre of attention."

William coaxes a final thought from Tommy – one that not only reveals his brother's appreciation of Shakespeare, but that might also give pause to anyone who may still think that a life with Down's is a life not worth living.

"What was your favourite line?" he asks his brother.

Once again, acting the speech then and there in the café, Tommy intones: "To be or not to be. That is the question."

William asks: "And what do you think that means?"

Tommy: "Should I live or should I die?"

William: "And what do you think you should do?"

Tommy: "Live."

'Growing Up Down's' will be shown on BBC3 in February; blueappletheatre.com

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